Are the Watchdogs Still Watching Local Government?

By Jerry Bader and Sam Morateck

In June 2017, no media was present when Washington Middle School teacher Kertsin Westcott told the Green Bay School Board she was resigning because of what she described as unsafe conditions at the school for both staff and students due to unchecked unruly behavior by some students. Westcott’s sometimes tearful speech detailing what she and other teachers at Washington endure went unreported for nearly a month, until Media Trackers received an email tip with a link to the meeting video and reported on it:

Although her voice broke at times, Westcott remained calm as she described in jarring detail what students and staff face each day at Washington:

  • “I fear for my safety every day. I am equally afraid for the safety of my colleagues and, most importantly, my students. We are in danger every day when we show up to our school.”
  • “Students and staff are physically, verbally, emotionally, mentally and sexually abused, every single day in the building.”
  • “We are sworn at and called vile, crude and sexual names every day.” (Westcott brought with her a page full of examples from the previous two days but couldn’t bring herself to read them aloud, which she called devastating).
  • “In addition to verbal abuse, the people at Washington are getting injured more than ever…just a couple of weeks ago a teacher was taken away in an ambulance, with a bleeding head wound caused by a fight among three students.”
  • “Another teacher was physically attacked by students trying to set off a deadly allergic reaction on purpose, causing her throat to close and her to struggle to breathe.” (Westscott here is alleging that students attempted to induce a fatal allergic reaction in a teacher, yet a Google search yields no media coverage of an incident that could be described as attempted murder of a teacher in school.)
  • “A student was held down on a table and his legs put in vise grips, so that other students could take his shoes. “
  • “A student had his pants and underwear pulled down, exposing him in a crowded hallway of students.:
  • “Another student approached a group of teachers and pulled his pants down and touched himself inappropriately, while laughing at their requests to stop.”
  • “Just last week two students laid on a table in the  classroom and kissed each other  heavily and pretended to have sex, while a substitute teacher tried to get them to stop.”

The Washington Middle School controversy has not gone away, yet the media continues to stay away from Green Bay school board meetings, according to school board member Rhonda Sitnikau.

“In my experience, what typically drives media to cover school district/Board of Education issues is a topic related to a past issue that the public has presented. Although a person may not fault the media entirely…The majority of school board meetings are lengthy; sometimes up to 5 hours long. The board president along with the Superintendent create the agenda. I’ve noticed that many “hot topics” are typically pushed to the end of the line up. Is this by design?  It’s hard to fathom that it’s not, thinking that most media outlets aren’t staffing until 10 PM.

Media presence absolutely keeps transparency in the equation.
I’ve witnessed firsthand the changes and conversations that move forward because of the accountability that stems from media interest and coverage. I’m not one to tell someone to sit through 5 hour meetings, but if they choose to view the meetings online opposed to attending them, they should be following up with stories and interviews to keep the public apprised to what is happening with their tax dollars.”

In fact, Sitnikau said there was no media presence when conditions at Washington Middle school were addressed again at a Green Bay School board meeting in November.

A controversy in the Appleton Area School District, first reported by Media Trackers, had previously gone unreported by Appleton area media. Appleton School Board Member Alvin Dupree had raised concerns about how Outagamie County Judge Mark McGinnis was handling students in an in-school truancy court. After Media Trackers reported on Dupree’s concerns, The Appleton Post Crescent ran a series of stories on the issue, giving it in-depth coverage.

After weeks of intense media coverage,  a reviewer recommended at a Dec. 20 School Board meeting that McGinnis no longer serve on the court. Ultimately Chief Judge James Morrison decided to end the circuit court’s involvement with truancy court and the school district suspended it for the rest of the school year.

These stories prompted Media Trackers to examine how local media covers local government. We reached out to  newspaper editors asking how often they covered local governmental meetings in several Wisconsin communities. We received no response. We then asked local governments about how often the media attends their meetings.

In general, our findings indicate that coverage of local government by media varies, but Sitnikau’s observations seemed to be validated: school boards tend to see the least coverage:

Kris A. Teske, WCMC Green Bay City Clerk: “The media attends all city council meetings.”

Brown County Clerk: “The newspaper typically has a reporter for the monthly County Board meeting.  Television stations are frequent with controversial subjects.”

Winnebago County Clerk:  “Occasionally. The media infrequently attends all meetings. Local newspaper is more likely to attend. If there is a topic on the agenda that is generating a lot of interest, then both might attend.”

Sara Hickey, Legislative Services Manager, Outagamie County: “I have been attending the county board meetings for about a year and do not notice a regular media presence.  However, if a member from a local newspaper were to attend, that person may not be as easy to identify as a television station member that totes their camera equipment with them.”

Katie Nieman, Communication Director at Oshkosh Area School District: “The Oshkosh Northwestern no longer regularly covers our school board meetings. In talking with some of our District leaders, it has been over three years since they had a regular presence. In the past year, a reporter attended (in person) two school board meetings, one of which was when a new reporter was just starting in the area. However, they typically will include information from any press release that I send out – usually just publishing the information in their online paper.”

Kylie Harwell, Appleton School District, “They occasionally attend. I would assume it is based on the topic since our Board meeting agendas are published ahead of time.”

No one from the Wausau School District answered our inquiry, but Chris Conley of WSAU radio, Wausau told Media Trackers that they are a rare exception when it comes to local media covering local government:

It’s rare for us NOT to be at a Wausau Common Council meeting, and we staff almost all Wausau School Board meetings. But it means there is much less coverage for, for instance, the Mosinee School Board — which forced their old superintendent out, and there hasn’t really been a good explanation for her departure; and Merrill City Council, which had a dubious closed-session last night to review property taxes. The smaller communities get much less coverage, even from a well-staffed radio station.

Conley said local government coverage by the Wausau Daily Herald has diminished in the 16 years he’s been in the market. He said television coverage tends to be meeting agenda driven.

Local media has long been seen the watchdog of local government. Numerous reports and studies have more generally indicated that the local media isn’t paying as close attention to local government activity as it once did. A 2018 report on a study of the diminishing presence of local media suggested that it comes at a cost. The study focused on government-issued revenue bonds and how they are impacted by lack of media coverage:

Revenue bonds are commonly issued to finance local projects such as schools and hospitals, and are backed by the revenues generated by those projects. General obligation bonds, on the other hand, are typically used to finance public works projects such as roadways and parks, and are backed by local taxes and fees. Revenue bonds should be subject to greater scrutiny because of the free cash flows that those projects generate, and these bonds are rarely regulated by the state government. A local newspaper provides an ideal monitoring agent for these revenue-generating projects, as mismanaged projects can be exposed by investigative reporters employed by the local newspaper. When a newspaper closes, this monitoring mechanism also ceases to exist, leading to a greater risk that the cash flows generated by these projects will be mismanaged.

That study focused on the consequences of media outlets disappearing. Other studies point suggest that media consolidation has led to local media becoming a less effective watchdog.

Nick Meyer, the publisher of the Chippewa Valley based magazine Volume One spoke in an interview with Wisconsin Public radio of the effects of media consolidation on local media in 2017.

Can you talk about the importance of local coverage?
While Meyer noted that his publication does not specialize in political coverage he responded:
…as the ownership of media voices evolves you really want high attention on your local races from these local organizations, those are the only places that are able to tell these stories. You’re not going to get them from CNN or the New York Times and things. So it’s really important that they have those newsrooms and they ask those questions of their city council races and their school board races and things like that. Yeah, the presidential stuff tends to get the most eyeballs, but if we are ever going to have success on a local level and build communities that we all want to see, we need good, strong, locally rooted media organizations to tell those stories, and that can be done if they are owned locally and that can be done if they are owned for afar.
We’ve been talking about the Eau Claire market where you are, do you see similar scenes around Wisconsin?
In terms of the corporate ownership changing? Yeah, I’m not sure what’s even left of the major cities in the state, I think they had all sold off their daily papers, I think for the most part well before Leader Telegram did here in Eau Claire. They hung on for quite a while and they deserve some credit for that but it’s a trend that is going to continue to march on. I think the public has to make peace with what that means, and whether they are locally owned or they are owned form afar, hold these groups accountable to still do a good job, tell those stories, develop those voices and help build the community in whatever way they can.
Warren Bluhm has spent more than 30 years in radio and newspapers in Northeast and East Central Wisconsin.  He worked in Green Bay radio news and for the Green Bay Press Gazette, among other media outlets. He was very blunt in his assessment of what has happened to local media watchdogs, telling Media Trackers:
When I first started working in Green Bay in 1984, you could expect city council, county board and school board meetings to be covered by reporters from three radio stations and two newspapers. Each of those five reporters carried a different perspective into the room, and we would compare notes to see which stories the other reporters considered worth writing about. There was a marvelous diversity with that many eyes and ears present. It wasn’t even unusual to see more than one reporter at committee meetings, since we all knew a lot of the heavy lifting was done at the committee level and later rubber-stamped by the larger body.

With the implosion of the radio news business and a change in attitude about covering routine meetings, by the time I shifted my attention to Sturgeon Bay in 2002, I was struck by the fact that more media covered the Door County Board (two radio stations and the local newspaper) than the Brown County Board.

Nowadays the journalism industry has imploded even more, and only dinosaurs like myself believe in attending routine meetings on a regular basis. The watchdogs stopped watching a long time ago.

It’s not that the reporters and editors don’t want to watch. Anyone who’s been to more than a handful of meetings knows they can be a valuable source of stories, seeing and understanding our tax dollars at work. But the bean counters told the editors to cut reporting staff, and the rallying cry became “Do more with less” and, later, “Do fewer things better.” One of the things that got dropped was regular coverage of local government meetings.

The Washington Middle School controversy is perhaps the best example of the failure of “Do fewer things better.” All of the remaining local media made a conscious decision that covering Green Bay School Board meetings was not necessary. It’s because clicks rule in what passes for journalism today: Almost every story that comes out of a Green Bay School Board meeting will generate fewer clicks than “5 Best Places to Buy a Beer in Brown County,” and so they hire a beer reporter and try to cover eight local school districts without attending school board meetings.

This is not to say that newspaper, television and radio news don’t do important work and keep the public informed on important issues. For example, media open records requests at the state and local levels have generated stories vital to the public interest many times in Wisconsin in recent years. But it is difficult for the public to hold accountable at the ballot box elected officials whose activity isn’t closely monitored by the media. It’s also impossible for voters to know how much more expensive local government is without a persistent media watchdog at local governmental meetings.

Media Trackers also heard the argument from several people that the live streaming, cable broadcasts, and You Tube posting of meetings allows the media to cover local government without attending the meetings. But, as just one example, it’s clear nobody in the Green Bay media watched the June 2017 Green Bay school board meeting where Westcott made her tearful presentation, until Media Trackers coverage made them aware of it.

While neither exhaustive nor scientific, our narrow review of four markets suggest that the concerns raised by Sitnikau and Bluhm have merit; that local governments are operating with dramatically limited media oversight when compared with decades past.